Summer 2009 | Caring for creation
Shadowed ground, sacred place
Oklahoma City’s Field of Empty Chairs Memorial was created to honor those who were killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
By Michael Lukens
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies
Tragedy, violence and commemorative rituals
The designation of sacred places in the memory of tragic and violent events, the shocking and uncommonly terrible moments of suffering and loss, is a universal drive, a quest to understand who we are and what we most value. In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in the interconnection of historical memory and social identity.The relation of memory and identity is inevitably common in personal reflection. But it also has special relevance in the way we understand ourselves as associations, institutions, and in our cultural and national consciousness.
Kenneth Foote, a social geographer from the University of Colorado at Boulder, brought a distinctive dimension to this topic in his spring semester lecture, part of the Killeen Chair lecture series for this academic year, on the theme “Sacred Spaces: Marking the Extra/Ordinary.”
Intertwined in Foote’s address were a number of recalled images of physical sites, each of which vibrates with remembered suffering and a residual sacral quality. Yet, Foote reminds us that our national memories are constantly dynamic, since these memorial places change in meaning through time, often reflecting as much our present consciousness as the initial interpretation of the tragic event.
The American quest for national identity, a shifting but seemingly constant endeavor, has long included a compelling impulse to consecrate places of staggering suffering (like Gettysburg) in order to make holy the site of willing sacrifice.
Our impulse is the same today in remembrance of unwilling victimization (the Sept. 11 attack), in memory of values sustained and valued lives lost. Such places may acquire near-immediate sanctity or a slowly emerging importance but their rootage is the same: in a deep recognition of heroism and vicarious sacrifice. Other places are marked not by heroic stature but by a sense of shame. A place may become sacred by its obliterating senselessness (Gallows Hill in Salem, site of the 1692 “witches” execution; today, Columbine), where moral loss and distorted meaning prevails. In such places we stand on “shadowed,” haunted ground.
At the same time, there are so-called “designated” special places that become sacred through “rectification,” in a gradual evolution toward corrective action through education and reconciliation. (The Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King Jr. was executed, now committed to racial understanding. Or a training center for fire safety at the original site of the Great Chicago Fire.) Foote’s analysis raises questions that are useful in approaching any memorial place of significance: how it emerged, how its meaning may have changed in a new cultural context, and whether its purpose has shifted because of changes in our understanding of ourselves.
Foote’s reflections were replete with examples, especially from the Southwest (the Alamo, the Oklahoma City Federal Building), where much of his research and writing has taken place. Yet, I rather think that most of us listening had an alternative set of examples running through our minds, focused on our own experiences and memories. I had just returned some days before this lecture from Berlin, a city of which I have extensive experience. I began thinking of Foote’s analytic characteristics applied to that haunted city, where one cannot help but be reminded on every street, almost every block, of a past of sacrifice and tragedy.
The Grunewald Freight Station with its bronze plaques lining the rails for 100 yards, each denoting the exact number of Jews who boarded a train there, with an exact date and destination, deported to death. The quiet little park on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, with its writhing sculptures, that was a collection site for orphaned children and elderly people on their way to extinction. The sidewalk monument just outside Philharmonic Hall, a pinnacle of German culture and sophistication, that marks the now-obliterated street site (Tiergarten Strasse 4) of the Third Reich headquarters for the infamous “T-4” program, the eugenic program for racial purity that led to the murder of more than 100,000 mentally ill or severely disabled persons.
Each of us has such special memorials deeply imprinted in our minds, reflecting sacred places permanently powerful in our own emotional experience. For those who find this interrelation of memory and meaning a provocative call, particularly in our own culture, a valuable resource is Foote’s most recent monograph, “Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscape of Tragedy and Violence” (2003). Foote reminds us well that there is both an inevitable and continually important asset here, in the collective arena where perseverance of memory helps us shape and clarify who we think we are and how we want to convey to ourselves and to others what are our most important moments, for good or ill, because their meaning has become ours.
Look here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current
St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).
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